Lingering snobbery towards dance music means the Big Beach Boutique II, a DJ set by Norman Cook – AKA Fatboy Slim – on Brighton beach on 13 July 2002, tends not to be mentioned alongside era-defining gigs like the Rolling Stones at Hyde Park in 1969, the Stone Roses at Spike Island in 1990 or Oasis at Knebworth in 1996. Right Here, Right Now (Sky Documentaries) might rectify that, but it isn’t just a thrilling document of the event itself. The combination of what happened, and what might have happened but didn’t, turns Jak Hutchcraft’s film into a surprisingly intense experience, a rush powered by the euphoria of irresponsible adventure and the sweet sadness of distant youth.
This is good going, considering that the first half is a relatively tedious summary of Norman Cook’s earlier career. We shuffle through his stint as the bass player in 80s band the Housemartins, whose tinkling guitars contrasted with the deep knowledge of funk and dance records Cook was acquiring in his spare time. By the time the Housemartins had run their course, he was a DJ, ready to embrace the new era of club culture. In 1996, he released his debut album under the moniker Fatboy Slim, layering ingeniously chosen samples over dance rhythms to create what became known as big beat. When Channel 4 held an open-air screening of an England cricket match at the Brighton seaside in 2001, it asked Fatboy Slim – who by then had scored top-five hits with Praise You and The Rockefeller Skank – to DJ afterwards. Thousands of people turned up. Fatboy Slim decided to stage a sequel the following year, planning a free set for as many people as the beach could take.
When Right Here, Right Now reaches the summer of 2002, it becomes an entirely different film. Suddenly local councillors and senior police officers are being interviewed, and describe their preparations: the phrase “multi-agency meeting”, not often heard in rockumentaries, is uttered several times as those involved recall their growing concern that too many people would attend the event. Meanwhile, the documentary hears from some of those who did: ravers old and young, famous (John Simm, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost) and not, remembering how they borrowed cars, piled on to trains and did whatever was necessary to get to Brighton.
Too many people did indeed arrive – far too many. The council had estimated 60,000, but it was more like 250,000. The A23 was backed up past Gatwick about 25 miles away. Abandoned cars were strewn along the coast road to nearby Hove. Several hours before the gig was to start, the beach was a vast mass of people, high on beer, ecstasy and the Sussex sun. In a live TV interview on his seafront balcony at the Grand hotel, Fatboy Slim said: “I’m quite scared.” He wasn’t joking.
The details make you flinch with anxiety. The security staff tasked with telling punters standing at the water’s edge that they couldn’t stay there, because they would be underwater when the tide came in, quit en masse because the job was impossible. Riot police manning the beach’s groynes – stone barriers counteracting longshore drift, with slippery seaweed on top and a sheer drop on one side – were withdrawn for their own safety. At an afternoon meeting with police, Fatboy Slim was told the gig should go ahead, not because it was deemed safe, but because it would have been even more dangerous to cancel.
On to the stage he went, opening with It Just Won’t Do by Tim Deluxe and closing with his own new remix of Pure Shores by All Saints. The music was perfect, the crowd went into raptures and the catastrophe the authorities had feared … never materialised. Only six arrests were made, and the two fatalities – a heart attack, and a fall from the esplanade railings above the beach – were tragic anomalies. The crushes, violence and drownings that could so easily have claimed scores of lives didn’t happen, for one simple reason: this was a loved-up dance crowd, not a fired-up rock crowd. As one of the security staff succinctly puts it: “If that had been an Oasis gig, we would have been fucked.”
Big Beach Boutique II has become a case study for students of event management, a textbook example of how not to do it. No similar free concert has been permitted in Britain since. But in the film’s fantastic array of still photos of the day, we see people exhilarated and free. Speaking now, the ravers who met their life partners, underwent epiphanies, or just had the time of their life on that beach all gleam at the memory of a moment – a wild night out with a quarter of a million mates – that is all the more glorious because it must never be repeated.